Tuesday, October 25, 2011

NFL Week 7: A mess in the NFC

The Packers continue to win, everyone else in the NFC seems to have 4 wins, and some guy starts in Denver.
  • This seems to be more like the 2007 Lions than the 1957 Lions. For the second straight week, the Lions turn in a thoroughly unimpressive performance at home. Just 1 for 12 on third downs, Stafford completing less than 50% of his passes, good run defense except for one huge run that set up a scoring play, 10 penalties, including a few that occurred at particularly bad times, bad coverage on special teams, no touchdowns in the red zone ... Detroit looks nothing like the team that blew out Kansas City and knocked off Tampa Bay and Dallas on the road. Sure, maybe San Francisco and Atlanta are both playoff-caliber teams, but the Lions have plenty of games left against those teams, and if they can't straighten out these issues, they're going to finish 7-9 and wonder what might have been.
  • For their part, the Falcons were not particularly impressive on offensive, but they did enough to get the job done. 7 of 17 on third downs doesn't sound great, but some of those were long conversions at the Lions' expense. Atlanta made some costly mistakes of their own, including throwing an interception deep in Detroit territory and committing a penalty that brought back a kickoff return TD, but they outplayed Detroit on the road and came away with a big win. Neither of these teams are likely to win their divisions, so this could be a key to determining wild-card position, as long as both teams can stay in the race.
  • TEBOWTEBOWTEBOWTEBOW. You have, I'm sure, already heard how TIM TEBOW led a miraculous comeback to vault the Broncos past the Dolphins in overtime on the road, and how afterward at the press conference, he walked on water. You may not have heard that he completed less than half of his passes for a paltry 161 yards, or that Denver managed a grand total of 0 points in the game's first 57 minutes against a winless team. This was an ugly win, exactly the type of game that fools people into thinking a quarterback is exactly as good as his record. With the Chargers and Raiders struggling, Denver could get back into contention in the West with a solid QB, but Tebow is not that QB. He'll pull out a couple of wins, defensive coordinators will figure out how to stop him, and the Broncos will muddle along in last place, continuing to live out the curse of the McDaniels era.
  • This game may be the one that costs Tony Sparano his job ... letting a winnable game against a weak team with a young QB get away. Failing to recover an onside kick, giving up a tying two-point conversion by allowing a rushing QB to run, fumbling the ball away in overtime. Converting just 3 of 14 third-down attempts. Averaging just 3 yards per carry. Unlike Denver, Miami is in a division with three playoff-caliber teams, and the difference between the top and the bottom is obvious. There simply isn't enough talent in Miami, especially not with Chad Henne out. The next coach and GM will have to rebuild this roster nearly from scratch ... as for the interim coach, he'll have to push the existing pieces around to squeak out a win or two to salvage some degree of respectability. The Colts have an excuse for being winless, but the Dolphins do not.
  • Remember when the Chargers were more than happy to have Philip Rivers? This year is not that year. To be fair, the question about the Jets has never been the defense, but still, you have to have the feeling that Rivers simply isn't good enough to win these games. (Then again, he's constantly being asked to work with second-tier wide receivers, and Antonio Gates still isn't 100%.) 16 for 32, two interceptions, under 200 yards passing ... true, the inability to keep Darren Sproles is also a factor, but there's clearly something missing in San Diego. Baltimore and New England are already in full playoff mode, there are a handful of other teams right behind them, and I can't say that the Chargers would be favored to beat any of them in the playoffs. 
  • Mark Sanchez finally found an appropriate receiver to lock onto in the red zone. The Jets continue to rely heavily on the run to take the load off their inaccurate QB (although if you can explain why LaDainian Tomlinson got the start today, I'd love to hear it; his days of being a feature back are long behind him), and it turned out to be just enough against the Chargers. Eventually, Rex Ryan will have to figure out how to make Sanchez into an NFL quarterback; the Jets are easy to beat if you stop the run, and there are a few defenses in each conference equipped to do it. 
  • The Bears picked up an unimpressive win in London to climb back into the playoff hunt, if such a thing can be said in October. It was important for Chicago because you can only lose so many early-season games when the division leader is unbeaten and half of the conference seems to be above .500. Chicago built a nice 21-5 lead, but made enough mistakes to let Tampa Bay pull within three late in the fourth. It seems the Bears haven't yet figured out how to run a Martz offense at its best ... or perhaps Martz hasn't figured out that his ideal offense requires superstars at all skill positions to be effective. (That's code for "it's a gimmick that is no longer viable at this level.") Martz will have to figure out how to run more clock with this offense, which seems odd given that Matt Forte is part of it. The decision not to re-sign him looks dumber and dumber every week: it's clear that the offensive line can't help Cutler carry the offense, and with a lesser RB, those long runs off broken tackles would become short runs.
  • Tampa Bay is collecting a nice set of losses against playoff-caliber teams (Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco). That's small consolation for Raheem Morris, who has to be thinking that this is going to be yet another season where the Bucs are just short of the playoffs. Josh Freeman is still young and still needs to learn when not to throw the ball ... at least two of his four interceptions were passes into solid coverage. This isn't quite the same as losing at home, but it was still a game Tampa Bay could have won. Fortunately, the Bucs have a bye this week (as is standard for teams returning from London), so Freeman will have an extra week to practice avoiding defenders before meeting the Saints in Week 9.
  • Soooooo ... the Texans don't miss Andre Johnson and Mario Williams all that much, I guess. Just when it looked like the South was up for grabs with those key injuries, Houston went into Tennessee and crushed the Titans. Schaub was extremely efficient (18 for 23, 2 TDs, no picks), Foster was dangerous on the ground and in the passing game as well (25 carries for 115 yards, 5 receptions for 119 yards, including a 78-yard TD), and Houston allowed Tennessee to convert just 2 of 10 on third down. The Texans' lead is just half a game, but on Sunday, it seemed like so much more.
  • The Titans have to feel that they're still in the hunt in the South, but the strength in the North and East pretty much ensures that there will not be a wild-card spot available for other teams, so it's either the division or nothing. Tennessee doesn't play Houston again until the final week of the season, which is good: they didn't really stop anything the Texans did, and they couldn't mount any offense of their own. With the NFC South on the schedule, the Titans don't have many easy games left; they have two games with Indianapolis and one with Jacksonville, but the rest will be tough. 
  • All of a sudden, Washington looks like the team we thought they'd be coming into the season and not the team that was alone atop the NFC East. Washington was -3 in turnovers against Carolina, and that made all the difference. Now that Rex Grossman is back to being the usual Florida quarterback in the NFL, Washington's offense looks like a bunch of backups, which is basically what it is: Grossman or Beck at QB, Hightower at RB, a bunch of meh guys at WR ... they're going to have to get some quality performances out of those guys to make a run at a wild-card spot, but I think it's unlikely this team will be able to reproduce their early-season success.
  • Cam Newton is still doing the same things he did at Auburn: run the ball, throw the ball, run some more, throw some more. Against weaker defenses, it works pretty well, and Washington's defense played the part admirably. Carolina probably needs another year or two to get enough talent to be able to rely less on Newton, which I think is a requirement at this level: QBs who do a lot of running take a lot of shots, and few teams have capable backups, especially teams who picked a QB #1 overall even though they already had a young QB on their roster.
  • Seattle is a bad team. Charlie Whitehurst completed 40% of his passes and threw for under 100 yards. The Seahawks were just 2 of 12 on third down. They made only one red zone trip and did not get a TD out of it. And yet, the defending division champs are 2-4 and actually beat the Giants on the road. They don't look anywhere near as good as the 49ers and are extremely unlikely to make the playoffs again, but those wins coupled with some bad seasons in other cities have already pushed Seattle well out of range of Andrew Luck, assuming that Pete Carroll realizes that Tarvaris Jackson is just as bad as Minnesota thought he was. Seattle has plenty of holes to fill, so even without a marquee QB in that spot (Russell Wilson, perhaps?), they'll need that pick and then some. 
  • Pittsburgh is finally rolling into midseason form, which is a good thing; the fast starts by the Bills and Ravens made it look like the Steelers might have some difficulty getting back to the Super Bowl, but at 5-2, they're in a pretty good position, and with the NFC West on their schedule, they have a significant advantage over wild-card competitors in other divisions. Roethlisberger had another solid day (people seem to forget that Mike Tomlin likes to throw to build a lead and then run to protect it), the offense kept the ball away from the Cardinals, and the defense did just enough to keep the game out of reach (1 turnover, 2 sacks, and a safety). Up next: New England and Baltimore at home. Better win those games ...
  • Kevin Kolb is doing what he can in Arizona, but even though he's a substantial upgrade over last year's QB charade, there are too many other flaws on this team to get them more than 3-4 wins, even in the sadness that is the NFC West. Once again, they have no running game, and if Beanie Wells is out for any length of time, "no" may become "absolutely no". Larry Fitzgerald is wasting away, waiting for Kolb to get enough time to find him open or for some other receiver to step up as a legitimate threat. As it is, any DC worth his salt will simply double-cover Fitzgerald and dare the Cardinals to beat him some other way, and Arizona just doesn't have the tools to make that happen.
  • Don't be fooled by this run: the Chiefs are still a bad team. They beat Minnesota by 5 and Indianapolis by 4; sure, they crushed Oakland in Oakland, but that was with crappy Kyle Boller and rusty Carson Palmer at QB. Matt Cassel had yet another unimpressive outing – he's looking more and more like this generation's Scott Mitchell – and this is not an era where you can win consistently by running the ball, not unless you have a top-5 defense as well, and Kansas City does not have that. (Intercepting bad quarterbacks does not make your defense good; that's an expectation, not a bonus.) Still, this was an important win, and if the Chargers slip up again, Kansas City might be making a run at another division title, unworthy though they might be.
  • Yes, it was Jason Campbell, wasn't it? OK, maybe not all Campbell, but the contrast between Campbell's performance and the six-interception ugliness that was Oakland quarterbacking on Sunday was about as stark as, well, Peyton Manning vs. Not Peyton Manning. Oakland ran the ball just about as well as they usually do, but with a horrible passing game instead of a solid one, they handed a mediocre Chiefs team an important division victory, one the Raiders may regret if they end up at 8-8 or 9-7 and just miss a tie for the division. Then again, if Palmer can't learn the offense quickly enough (he admitted he knew maybe 10% of it, no surprise given his lack of reps), the division may not be in reach anyway.
  • The Rams have finished receiving their beatings from the NFC East, and they can't be excited about their next opponent either, not after watching the Saints hang 62 on the Colts on Sunday night. This may be hard to believe, but the Rams are probably worse than the Colts. Sam Bradford is leading yet another desultory passing attack – his ANY/A is a dismal 4.6, right about where it was last year, which should serve as a warning that counting stats frequently don't tell you anything – and St. Louis doesn't have an effective running game, either, as Steven Jackson will no doubt tell you. (I can't imagine what it must be like to be trapped in that offense.) Let's not lump the entire NFC West together again: just like the 49ers are better than the rest, the Rams are significantly worse. Two years after going 0-16, the Lions were 6-10, and they're 5-2 now. Two years after going 1-15, the Rams could well go 0-16.
  • Dallas doesn't look quite as bad now that their losses are to teams who are 5-1, 5-2, and 4-3, and that win over San Francisco looks better every week. Next week's Sunday night game against Philadelphia should determine whether or not the Cowboys are playoff contenders: the Eagles look like anything but, and a win would push Dallas to 4-3 and keep them perfect in the division, plus it might remind people that Tony Romo is. not. the. problem. (Yes, he makes bad decisions under pressure, but in case you haven't noticed, replacement-level QBs are somewhere between bad and terrible, or maybe you didn't see Carson Palmer in Oakland. This is what the Cowboys have, so they better learn to live with it.)
  • Green Bay looked unimpressive in holding off Minnesota for their seventh straight win; once again, the defense simply did not get the job done. As much as we'd like to crown the Packers NFC champs for a second consecutive season, they've simply got too many flaws on defense to justify that label at this point, 7-0 record notwithstanding. They allowed 9 of 16 conversions on third downs, gave up a whopping 7 yards per carry on 31 rushes (exactly what a rookie QB needs in his first start), and nearly blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter against a team known for blowing leads themselves. Mike McCarthy can't be happy with that defense. Perhaps playing with fire has finally burned the Packers: they're still getting plenty of interceptions, but giving up plenty of yards when they don't get picks. Green Bay's 7.1 NY/A was tied for 11th-worst in the league going into the Minnesota game. This year, a solid pass defense is a requirement for winning games. Would you bet on the Packers to beat, say, the Ravens, looking at their respective defenses? I wouldn't either.
  • It's hard to say which spoke more poorly of Donovan McNabb: the fact that he said his benching was a surprise, or the fact that Christian Ponder moved the Vikings well. Minnesota's poor start, coupled with the 5-0 records Detroit and Green Bay posted, immediately pushed the Vikings out of the North picture, and with the number of teams above .500 in the NFC, it's clear they had no chance at a playoff spot, so why not let the kid start? At worst, he'd just be getting NFL-caliber reps, and at best, he'd provide something that McNabb could not (would not?): a mobile QB able to hit his receivers. McNabb was sacked on 9.3% of his dropbacks this season, worse than all but three quarterbacks. Ponder was sacked just twice on 34 dropbacks against Green Bay. The Vikings don't need a Pro Bowl performance at QB, not with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, but they do need someone who can avoid second-and-20 or third-and-15, and Ponder certainly seems to provide that. It's probably too late to salvage anything from this season (Denver is the only game that appears somewhat winnable), but at least their young starter will be better prepared for 2012, when the McNabb experience will be forgotten in Minneapolis.
  • Guess who was fourth in the league in ANY/A? That's right, Curtis Painter. Yes, this is because some teams don't believe in tackling receivers, and perhaps DYAR is a better judge of Painter, putting him 21st in the league, but still, he's much better than I gave him credit for. Perhaps it was just a matter of getting him reps. (Something for Peyton to keep in mind when he comes back: backups with almost literally no experience are going to struggle much more than those who've actually run some plays in practice.) There isn't much point in dwelling on Sunday night's game: a bad team playing at a good team, a weak defense trying to stop a solid offense ... going into that game, we knew New Orleans was a playoff contender and Indianapolis was helpless without Manning, and today we know the very same things. Colts fans would be wise to avert their eyes for the rest of the season, take their 2-14 record and their high draft pick, and hope that #18 is ready to go in 2012.
  • New Orleans wanted to get things back on track after their surprising loss at Tampa Bay, a game that threw the NFC South into confusion. They wanted to reestablish themselves as clear favorites in the division and keep pace with San Francisco for the #2 spot in the NFC and a first-round bye. Well, they certainly seemed to do that. Great teams blow out bad teams, and 62-7 certainly qualifies as a blowout. The Saints may have a shot at an NFL record, as they face the hapless Rams this Sunday, but it'll require some work: the record for most points in consecutive games is held by none other than the 1950 Los Angeles Rams, who posted a stunning 135 points in October against the Colts and Lions, winning 70-27 and 65-24. That team was like an extreme version of the best teams this year: great on offense, bad on defense. (They had to win a playoff with the Bears just to get to the NFL Championship, where they lost to the Browns, 30-28. That had to be a frustrating situation for Chicago, as they swept the Rams during the regular season. Needless to say, tiebreakers weren't in place back in those days.)
  • Monday night's game served as a reminder that Baltimore's offense is just about as good as New England's defense, which is to say that it looks like it'll cost them 2-3 games this season. Having a dominating defense is fine, but you can't expect it to score every game. Jacksonville stopped the Baltimore running game, holding them under 3 Y/C and forcing a fumble, but what was more impressive was holding the passing game to 3.6 Y/A. That isn't going to win any games: by comparison, the worst team in the NFL, the Browns, averages 5.8 Y/A. The Ravens now have two inexplicable losses to AFC South teams; they've beaten the Texans and are all but certain to beat the Colts, but those losses could come back to haunt them, especially if Pittsburgh wins their rematch the week after next. You can't afford to lose games like this in a tough division.
  • Jacksonville is still a bad team with a putrid offense (2 of 16 on third downs, 4.7 Y/A, a tick over 3 Y/C, just 13 first downs), but sometimes the other team gives you chances to win anyway. Three long-distance field goals may have saved Del Rio's job for another week or two, but make no mistake, this team is a wreck. The passing attack is terrible, the running game is hardly effective, special teams have been mediocre (Monday night notwithstanding) ... the defense cannot make up for all of those shortcomings. It's been four years since the Jaguars were any sort of threat, and there's no sign of any overall improvement this season. The newly-improved defense is more than offset by the horrible offense. Neither McCown nor Gabbert has done anything with the passing game: when the two lowest DVOAs are on your team, it isn't just the QBs, although it's worth pointing out that neither has much of a pedigree (McCown did nothing in the past to indicate he's an NFL-caliber QB, and of course Gabbert is a rookie). Jacksonville fans deserve better than this ... and you have to wonder if the NFL isn't watching this situation carefully. Not even Goodell would try to force an expansion team into the current setup, which means that when Los Angeles asks for a team again, they're going to get an existing team. I know, you're looking at the AFC South and saying "Tennessee, Indianapolis, Houston ... Los Angeles?" My answer to that: St. Louis Rams. They're a much better geographic fit for the South than the NFC West, and honestly, you'd have a much easier time selling that switch than pulling a team out of the AFC West. Those teams have played together for 50 years. (OK, 51. The AFL West in 1960 was the LA Chargers, the Dallas Texans, Oakland and Denver.)
The Packers seem to be a step ahead of everyone else; San Francisco has locked down the NFC West, but the other six divisions are tightly contested. The Colts, Dolphins and Vikings (plus the rest of the NFC West) are planning for next year already, with the Panthers, Broncos and Jaguars right behind them. Andrew Luck may be the next Peyton Manning (or Ryan Leaf), but there's plenty of talent behind him, and some of these GMs have to be looking at a Manti Te'o (would you play another season at Notre Dame?) or a Michael Floyd as a possible solution to this season's problems. (How much easier would it be for Gabbert if he had Floyd to throw to?)

2 comments:

  1. Spot on again. I was down on the Lions this week wondering about if losing a winnable SF game would hurt them, and it appears it did. They have definitely lost a step.
    The Bears were disappointing for most of the second half and can thank Barber for dropping a pick six to help their cause. Cutler is getting a little more luck this year as a number of passes could have been intercepted with more reliable defensive hands. GS

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  2. Thanks, GSz. I'm not sure it's so much the effects of the 49ers game as it's been ongoing problems on which other teams simply haven't capitalized. It could be as simple as the knock on Stafford coming out of college: he's just not accurate enough. He's 21st in completion percentage this season, behind such luminaries as Donovan McNabb and Tarvaris Jackson. His ANY/A is still good, but that's more from hitting Megatron and others on plays where defenders just don't catch them, not from overall accuracy on deeper passes.

    Cutler is worse, 59.1%, and of course a good bit of that is from lack of protection causing him to get rid of the ball before he gets killed again. Both teams have offensive problems that are going to prevent them from taking advantage of the Packers' bad secondary. Then again, as long as no team in the NFC develops a good balance, I suppose any one of 7-8 teams could win it.

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